Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Can we save our libraries?

Sandra Parshall

We all know libraries are hurting because of budget cuts, but do you have any idea how bad the situation really is?

Here are some figures presented in a recent issue of Publishers Weekly:

The New York (City) Public Library faces $40 million in budget cuts, which would mean eliminating 650 full-time staff positions, drastically reducing the hours libraries are open, and trimming materials acquisitions by a third. This is a library system that currently has 40 million visitors a year (more than attend all local sports events combined). Estimates are that budget cuts will reduce that number by six million and that a million fewer children and young people will be served.

In Detroit, 20% of library workers have already been laid off and those remaining had their salaries cut 10%. The library system’s 2012 budget will be cut from $35.5 million to $23 million.

The Houston Public Library’s budget was $39.3 million in fiscal year 2010; for FY 2012, it will be $32 million. The Dallas library has lost more than half its materials budget in the past few years.

The same sad story is repeated across the nation in communities large and small. State libraries have also been hit with severe cuts in funding, and the Obama administration has proposed eliminating federal funding for the Department of Education’s Literacy Through School Libraries program, which provides funds for materials, staff, and services in school libraries.

Why does any of this matter? What will happen if our library systems implode?

Millions of children in low-income and rural areas will lose the only place that gives them access to books and the internet. Inner city children will lose the only quiet, safe place where they can go to study. People hoping to start small businesses and unemployed people looking for work will lose the research opportunities libraries provide. Everyone who loves to read will lose that magical doorway into other worlds and lives.

As the scope of the potential loss becomes clear, citizens in many communities are mobilizing to save their libraries and make politicians realize that access to a library is a necessity in today’s world, a basic right in a literate society, not a luxury that can be discarded when times are bad. In Oregon, the Hood River County Library, closed for the past year, is about to reopen after citizens approved the formation of a new tax district to pay for its operation. In Los Angeles, voters approved Measure L, which sets aside a greater amount of property tax revenue for the library system and will reverse the major funding cuts imposed last year.

If they can’t sway the budget-makers, some communities are raising funds on their own. In Seattle, Friends of the Library raised $1 million, including $500,000 from a single anonymous donor.

Writers are also rallying to the cause. Karin Slaughter’s Save the Libraries project, backed up by International Thriller Writers, is helping libraries with fundraising events and auctions of items donated by bestselling authors. Go to for more information. Sisters in Crime’s We Love Libraries Lottery provides a $1,000 grant to a different library every month, with the stipulation that the money be used only for acquiring books. To find out how your local library can enter the drawing, go to

We can’t sit back and wait for big organizations and other people to save our libraries. We can’t assume that the slash-and-burn approach to library budgets will blow over and everything will be okay in the end. What’s happening to libraries throughout this country is nothing short of catastrophic. We have to donate money and materials and support fundraising efforts, but we also have to remain aware and be willing to protest the next time a major cut is proposed.

Libraries are the heart and soul of a civilized society. We can’t afford to lose them. 

What do libraries mean to you? What would you lose if you no longer had a library near you?


Lesa said...

Thank you, Sandra. The library where I work is in the heart of one of those needy communities. We used to have so many junior high kids there all afternoon on Friday, when the nearby school closed early on Fridays. But, due to budget cutbacks and loss of staff, we closed on Fridays. Those kids don't have the library anymore to come to when they get out. We've cut our library hours in half, lost staff, and, finally, after three years of cuts in which we tried to save our materials budget, next year, that's being cut as well. I grew up in libraries, and worked in them since I was sixteen. My sisters and a nephew worked in libraries when they were in high school. It's such a tragedy that libraries are closing, and, in many communities, no one is speaking out. Why aren't they speaking out in my community? Because the families are also in the middle of tragedies as houses in their neighborhoods sit empty due to foreclosures, and people struggle to get jobs. They packed the libraries to apply for jobs, again, until we cut our hours. This needy community is not the type that speaks out. It's so sad.

Thanks for focusing on this issue.

Sheila Connolly said...

I live in a smallish town (one stoplight) with a handsome library, the gift of a successful businessman a century ago. Every year, when budget season comes around, the town tries to cut funding for the library (as well as for the Council on Aging and several other "non-essential" services). So far, every year the library has hung on. We're not talking about large amounts--maybe $30,000 to stay open five days a week, and maintain accreditation with the regional library system (the funding restored thanks to the 200 or so hardy souls who actually show up for town meetings to vote). All budgets, large and small, are strained these days, and unfortunately libraries are often seen as a luxury, even if they're well-used.

Julia Buckley said...

My town has three beautiful libraries, and when my children were small we were there often. In addition, I work closely with my school librarians on student research work, and the college librarians at my university were invaluable in helping me complete my master's degree.

Having said all that, though, I have to admit that I'm part of the problem: I haven't been to the library in more than a year, and I don't really have any excuse except that I didn't NEED to go--I have a stack of books to be read that will probably take me to 2014. I think a lot of people have good intentions and don't want their libraries to leave, but they don't realize how often they themselves stay away.

I still firmly believe in the importance of libraries and of free access to books, and the people who staff the libraries in my town are, like Lesa, knowledgeable, helpful and cheerful.

In addition, the biggest library in my town is beautiful--recently redecorated and expanded, it is reminiscent of the Sydney Opera House and filled with stylish touches like a wall-sized aquarium in the children's section and whimsical author quotes stencilled on the walls. The town made a huge investment in this library--to the tune of several million dollars--so they at least seem to be committed to keeping their libraries alive.

But I don't know how dearly government cuts will cost them.

Sandra Parshall said...

It's ironic that my branch library (five minutes from my house--how much better does it get?) is about to reopen with a gorgeous big addition paid for by a bond issue that was passed years ago, in better economic times -- yet the county-wide library system's budget has been slashed drastically for several years in a row. One-third cut one year, another third cut the next -- how long can any library system survive under those conditions?

Lesa said...

Thank you, Julia, for the comment about the staff at your library. Could I suggest that you find out how your town libraries are doing with operating expenses? A number of libraries did have money to build, but then the cuts came to operating expenses. Libraries really only have to places to cut from when they have to take cuts - staff and materials. Hours are cut because libraries no longer have the people to work those hours. Then, materials are cut. It's a vicious cycle. Why go to, or support, your public library, when the hours aren't convenient, and they don't have what you want? With adequate funding, libraries would have both.

Sandra Parshall said...

Buildings are paid for with bond issues that can be repaid gradually, and any new building owes its existence to a bond issue passed years ago, before the recession. Current operating expenses (staff, acquisitions) come out of current tax revenues, and that's where local governments are suffering and looking for "frills" to cut back on. A library is not a luxury! It's a necessity.

Anonymous said...

On my blog I have been posting articles and my own comments about the importance of libraries. Growing up, there wasn't any money to buy books so the library was my salvation. When my children were old enough to get library cards, in our town the requirement was the ability to print their names, it was celebrated as a rite of passage.

One way to help libraries is to use the hold system; I learned that if a hold is placed on a book from another town, that town and the local library from which the book is checked out, get credit in their circulation stats.

My mobility is limited, so each Saturday my husband takes a list of books on hold and a list of books for him to find on the shelves. Every Saturday the library is crowded and this is the large main branch. We have three branch libraries and although hours have been cut, none have closed and it isn't likely that they will. The neighborhoods in which the branches are located have rallied successfully every time the idea has come up with the city council.

We have a large immigrant population and many students in that community use the libraries every day after school. I realize that we are fortunate the the libraries are very vibrant and relative resources for the community.

I could neither afford nor house all the books I read, so the library is still my lifeline. I don't own a Kindle or a Nook but I have downloaded the applications to my laptop. I may buy one or the other when books can be borrowed easily from the library.

In discussing libraries, I include the necessity of helping out the circulations of the old-fashioned, paper books. It is terrific that some ebooks are becoming available but it doesn't take into consideration the initial cost of the ereader. Senior citizens are the greatest readers of fiction, especially crime fiction, and an ereader isn't realistic for those on a fixed income.

Patronage of the bricks and mortar buildings are a necessity if we want to keep libraries open. We can save our libraries if we make the effort now. Getting a library re-opened is much harder to do than to keep it open.


Barbara said...

Patronage is important, but the libraries that are hurting are not being cut because they don't have lots of use. They're being cut because local governments are trying to find ways to cut costs.

What's really important is for those who care about libraries - even if they have a TBR pile the size of Everest and no need to personally visit the library - to stand up for them as a wise investment of public funds. This isn't about the value of libraries, but about their short-term cost; we need to make clear that this is an investment worth making regardless of our personal use of the resource. Those who depend on libraries the most are the least likely to be listened to when budget decisions are made. Talk to your city council and help them understand why libraries matter.